Word of the Day – “überlegen”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. This time we’ll look at the meaning of

überlegen (pron.: uebuh laigan … kind of)

Überlegen is a fairly important word that you get to hear often in daily conversation and yet it kind of flies under the radar of many learners of German. Why? Because it can mean to think (about) as well as to decide and even to come up with  and either of those words has a more “obvious” translation… denken /nachdenken and entscheiden.  So is überlegen just another of those dictionary inflating, redundant synonyms that keep our languages from being nicely consistent… ( of course I’m kidding… synonyms are double plus good). Could we for example simply replace entscheiden  by überlegen? We can’t. Why not? Well… because the following 5 letters:

g r a m m a

are not enough to explain it we’ll  just look at lots of examples of überlegen and find out this way. 

Überlegen consist of 2 parts – the basic verb legen and the prefix über. Legen basically means to lay and to put and naturally many of you are now like “Hey what is the difference between legen and stellen. I thought stellen is to put.” And without going into that too deep let me tell one rule of thumb to decide whether it is legen or stellen in German.

  • If you legen something, you can’t tip it over.
  • If you can tip it over then you have gestellt it.

So if you put a cushion on the couch or a book on the table you can do either … legen and stellen.
Anyway… the other part of überlegen is the prefix über as in over as in above. You might have heard that über is one of the rare prefixes that can be both – separable and non-separable. And there are 2 überlegens actually. There is überLEGen whith a strong link and ÜBERlegen with a weak link. However, the one with the strong link is the interesting one so let’s get the other one out of the way right now… ÜBERlegen technically means to lay something over someone. But it is really rarely used. Almost never.

  • Ich lege mir eine Decke über.
  • I put a blanket over myself (lit.)

If you’re interested, here are some examples from linguee.com. But trust me, you do not need this word.
So…. the über we will be dealing in the rest of the post is NOT separable so it behaves like ent, ver or be.

All right. So… we basically have to look at 2 different überlegens. A plain one, and a self-referential one. And (worst pun ever approaching) just as every journey to Germany starts at the airport so will we start (here it comes) with the plain one (get it? Like… plane… so awful).

Überlegen

Überlegen without anything, in nerd speak called intransitive, means to think. But a very specific to think. Not the more philosophical one. That would be denken.

  • Ich denke,also bin ich.
  • I think therefore I am.

Überlegen is also NOT to think as in to believe or to reckon. Once again, denken or, maybe even better, glauben are the words you need.

  • Ich denke, das ist schon ganz ok so.
  • I think that IS about okay that way.
  • Was glaubst du, wer du bist? (sounds always negative)
  • Who do you think you are?

So what kind of thinking IS überlegen? It to think as in to search your mind for a result…

  • “How can we fit our infinite abundance of beachwear into our trunk.”
    “That’s tough. Let’s think.”
  • “Wie kriegen wir unsere schier unendliche Fülle an Strandbekleidung in den Kofferraum?”
    “Oh das ist nicht einfach. Mal überlegen.”
    (this example was brought to you by… Random & Weird™)

Now, some of you may already know nachdenken , which is another German word that can be used for this kind of thinking (check out nachdenken here). And indeed those 2 words are fairly close in meaning.

  • Let me think
  • Lass mich mal nachdenken /überlegen… (yes, mal has to be there)

However, there are 2 big difference between the nachdenken and überlegen. The first one is a grammatical difference. You can nachdenken about a thing. This does NOT work with überlegen. Überlegen cannot take an object, it can only take an action. Here’s what I mean:

  • I think about the movie.
  • Ich denke über den Film nach.
  • “Do you want to go to the movies with us today?
    “I’ll think about it.”
  • “Willst du heute mit ins Kino kommen?”
    “Ich denk’ drüber nach.

Neither of the examples works with überlegen because we are thinking about things.

  • Ich überlege über den Film.

This is just wrong. So when or what can we actually überlegen? Basically actions especially questions.

  • Ich überlege, wo mein Telefon ist.
  • I think about where my phone is ( if that makes any sense)
  • Ich überlege, wie ich am schnellsten zum Zoo komme.
  • I am thinking about what would be the fastest way to get to the zoo.
  • Ich muss mal überlegen, wann ich Zeit habe.
  • I have to think about when I’ll have time.
  • “Oh ich muss dieses Kleid einfach haben.”
    “Aber überleg‘ doch mal, was das kostet.”
  • “Oh I simply must have this dress.”
    “Think about, how much that costs, though!”

And this leads us to the second difference between nachdenken and überlegen. We could call it the goal or the scope. Überlegen pretty much always deals with one specific question… and a rather everyday question at that. Where did I put my phone? What can I do tonight? Should I go there or not? What do I want to eat? What should I wear tonight?
You cannot really überlegen “What is the purpose of our existence?” because there isn’t really a definite answer. This would be something you can nachdenken about, you can ponder or reflect upon. And speaking of pondering and reflecting, you can just nachdenken for hours… sit in your chair.

  • Ich habe in letzter Zeit viel nachgedacht.
  • I have been thinking a lot recently. (does that make sense?)

You cannot überlegen like that. That is not to say that überlegen always has to be short.

  • Ich habe lange überlegt ob ich den Job nehmen soll, aber ich hab’ mich dann dagegen entschieden.
  • I gave a lot of thought to whether or not I should take the job but finally I decided against it.

This is fine. You could just as well use nachdenken here and there are many situations in which either verb, nachdenken and überlegen, is fine but the more mundane your question gets the more out of place nachdenken sounds

  • I reflected upon the question where I’d put my phone…. this just doesn’t match to me.

So, quick summary: überlegen is basically thinking about a somewhat mundane question in order to get to a result. That sounds like a rather narrow meaning but hey… mundane every day questions are the ones we spend lots and lots of thought on so in fact this überlegen is used frequently as you can see here:

ueberlegen-vs-nachdenken

Seems like überlegen kicks nachdenkens ass. To be fair, more then half of the uses are probably on account of the other überlegen… the self-referential one.

Sich überlegen

Now, before we talk about the meaning of this we need to talk about the self reference because it is in Dative. So it is an indirect self reference.  It is rather to myself than myself.

  • Ich überlege mir… (not mich, mich would be doubleplusnunright)
  • Du überlegst dir...
  • Er/sie/es überlegt sich

If you use the direct self reference, the accusative one

  • Ich überlege mich…

it is totally wrong and I am not sure whether people would understand that. Think of it as the same concept like in to buy.

  • I bought 2 chocolate bars for myself.
  • Ich habe mir 2 Schokoriegel gekauft.
  • I überleged something for myself.
  • Ich habe mir etwas überlegt.

All right. Now… the difference in meaning to the first überlegen is actually not that big. But while the first überlegen was focusing on the act of reaching a result (to think) the sich-überlegen one is about the having the result. And that’s why it can mean to decide.

  • Ich habe mir überlegt, dass ich im Sommer mal nach Italien fahren will.
  • I have decided that I want to go to Italy this summer.
  • Hast du dir überlegt, ob du mit in die Oper kommst?
  • Have you decided, if you want to come with to the opera?
  • Überleg dir mal, was du heute abend essen willst!
  • Make up your mind about what you want to eat tonight!(lit.)
  • Let me know when you’ve decided what you want to eat tonight. (maybe)

The last example is kind of hard to translate without loosing the tone. The German version sounds really not offensive or demanding at all. It almost feels like a question. Anyway …
Now, what’s the difference between this überlegen and entscheiden, which also means to decide? Well, überlegen implies the whole process of reaching that decision by thinking while entscheiden, the more “obvious” translation,  is really just making the decision.

  • “Weißt du schon, ob du dieses Wochenende zu deiner Schwester fährst?”
    “Nee noch nich’. Das überleg’ ich mir morgen/Das entscheide ich morgen.”
  • “Do you know yet, if you are going to go visit sisters this weekend.”
    “Nah, not yet, I’ll decide tomorrow.

Using überlegen implies that will think about it and then decide, while entscheiden can be done on a whim.
But sich überlegen is not limited to decisions. Remember! Überlegen alone was used to think about everyday questions. Some of those questions call for a decision but others need you to come up with a solution. And so that’s why sich überlegen can mean to come up with stuff.

  • Ich hab’ mir überlegt wie wir all unsere vielen Strandklamotten in den Kofferraum kriegen.
  • I’ve concocted /conceived of (ahhh…  synonyms, so nice) a plan to fit all our   and so on and so on….

So you have thought about the question  (überlegen) and now you have a result. Let’s look at both words back to back.

  • Ich habe überlegt, wie ich das Problem lösen könnte.
  • I have been thinking about how I could solve the problem.
  • Ich habe mir überlegt, wie ich das Problem lösen könnte.
  • I have come up with a way to solve the problem.
  • Ich habe überlegt, wen ich zu meiner Party einlade.
  • I have been thinking who to invite to my party.
  • Ich habe mir überlegt, wen ich zu meiner Party einlade.
  • I have decided who to invite to my party.

So… having that indirect self-reference (for myself) in there changes what you do from simply thinking about the question into reaching a result by thinking about the question. Let’s do one more.

  • “Versuch mal, jeden Tag 2 Wörter zu lernen. Nur 2.”
    “Und dann, was soll das bringen?”
    “Naja, überleg mal, dann weißt du nach einem Jahr schon über 700.”
  • “Try to learn 2 words every day. Just 2.”
    “And what’s the point of that?”
    “Well, think about it, after a year you’ll know 700 already.”
  • “Ich habe zwei Karten für das Festival. Lust mitzukommen?”
    “Ach, ich weiß nich’…”
    Überleg’s dir und sag mir Bescheid.”
  • “I got 2 tickets for that festival. Wanne come with?”
    “Pfff, I don’t know…”
    “Well, think about it and let me know.”

So in the first example the speaker wants the other person to think about the whole scenario for a second (not for day, that would be nachdenken then), while in the second dialog, the person wants a decision.
And now we come to the big question:

Isn’t German a real joy?

Nah, I’m kidding of course. I’m sure this can be a little confusing. I mean, why does a word that consists of to lay and above take on those meanings anyway? Well, apparently überlegen originally  meant to lay stuff above one another and that somehow evolved into adding up things… as in math. And from there it is not that far from thinking about a question or reaching a decision or result. And that even explains the weird self reference… you add it up for yourself kind of.

Now, before we wrap up we need to talk another überlegen, and which word you compare it with this überlegen is superior literally … like… it translates to superior.

  • Thomas fühlt sich Maria geistig überlegen.
  • As far as brain smarts are concerned, Thomas feel like he is superior to Maria when it comes to brain smarts.
  • Das Team war seinem Gegner in allen Belangen überlegen.
  • The team was superior to its opponent in all respects.

And of course, as any language that is spoken by real people I suppose, we do have more superior in German. It is used very often in context of sports.

  • Die überlegenere Mannschaft hat gewonnen.
  • The more superior team won.

However, the triumph was short lived for just a week later they lost… against the  superiorerer team.
Seriously though, do you have this phrasing in your mother tongue too? I’d really like to know, so please leave me a comment about that :).
Oh and as we’re at it… the opposite of überlegen is, you guessed it, unterlegen.

All right… let me überlegen if that is all… hmmmm… yes, I think it is. So we’re done for today. This was our word of the day überlegen. It is thinking about the everyday questions of life and when you add a mir or dir or that kind of stuff, it turns into decide or come up with. It is a word you’ll definitely hear people say. Should you use it too? Well, überleg’s dir :).
If you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.